Mastering Short Forms for Academic and Scientific Writing

Mastering Short Forms for Academic and Scientific Writing
The internet may not be alone in creating an appetite for short textual forms, but it has certainly contributed to the trend in significant ways. Busy lives in which information is gulped down in short periods of time are also part of the picture. One could even argue that young minds are now developing in accordance with the trend for short forms, thus increasing the appetite for the information tidbit and reinforcing the trend. Whatever the good and evil of such a cycle may be with regard to literacy, attention span, intellectual capacity, logical thinking, critical assessment and so on, there is no doubt that mastering the short form is necessary for authors who wish to promote their writing, and scholarly authors are no exception, though they may find short forms particularly challenging.
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Academics and scientists tend to be much more accustomed to what might be called long forms of writing. Even in relatively brief articles for scholarly journals there is usually a need for thorough information and a standard pattern in which to present that information. Introductory or background material comes first, followed perhaps by a survey of the relevant literature, detailed descriptions of methods and tools, explanations of research procedures, reports and analyses of findings and concluding thoughts that discuss implications and recommendations. These elements feature in short forms of scholarly writing as well, but usually only some of them in any one document and there is generally no space in which to provide lengthy detail or elaborate argumentation. Instead of gradually building up to the most important information as the traditional scholarly model would have it, authors of extremely short documents generally reveal the most interesting or important information up front and then add whatever elaboration may be possible in the available space. For online environments in particular, keep in mind that readers need to know right away exactly what you are writing about and why it is interesting enough to keep reading. If these are not clear, it is all too likely that those readers will click their way to some other article without ever determining what yours had to offer.

Although mastering short forms of scholarly text is especially important when writing online, where not only reader habits and preferences but also word and character limits present restrictions on length and approach, strategies learned online can be applied to many other short textual forms. Research proposals, book descriptions, article abstracts, course outlines, progress reports and grant applications are excellent examples. Such short documents often present enormous challenges for scholars because their content must anticipate and to some degree contain large amounts of complex information and do so clearly and succinctly for an audience that includes nonspecialist readers. They must be short dramatic bursts that lead to longer and more detailed documents and experiences just as the description of a new research project on a university web page or a blog post about recent progress in the investigation of a problem must be. Putting the most engaging and vital information up front and expressing it with clarity and passion will catch and hold the attention of a wide variety of readers, and these strategies also stand a very good chance of impressing and inspiring those with a deeper interest to read on to a scholar’s longer and more formal research documents.

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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.

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